Is media coverage inevitable for charities?

6 mins

Charities being in the headlines is becoming more commonplace. Journalists are always looking for a new and interesting stories that are original and even scandalous which therefore keep their editors happy as readership levels increase. Therefore anything which attracts readers is of interest and charities can be targets for their stories because of the public interest and wide variety of views on the sector and its work.

Therefore all charities should be prepared with a media plan when the inevitable happens. If you are not prepared now on how to deal with the media when the approach comes, then it will be too late to react.

The Editors’ Code of Practice (produced by IPSO) does not require journalists to contact individuals or organisations before their story is released. However it does require that editors ‘take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images’. Therefore as a result it is quite common for journalists to approach organisations for comment before they publish their article.

So when you are approached on a Friday evening on an article that will be in the Sunday papers, what is your plan? It is quite common that where a press story is released by one particular paper then another tabloid will pick up the same story and so the coverage will increase dramatically.

The usual pattern nowadays is that the charity is approached and:

  1. either makes a comment, which may not always help the situation, but may help put across an explanation and feedback and any such comment needs to be carefully managed;
  2. makes a comment of ‘no response’ which is not advisable as such comments are reported in the press and tend to be reported in a way which gives a misleading impression of the charities approach or if the story is even true or not; or
  3. chooses not to respond to the approach at all. Some charities view silence and waiting for the storm to pass as their course of action.

So which approach is best and how will you manage the situation? Often the press article will be followed by a social media storm, with the charity issuing a statement and then the furore all then dies down and the charity then assess the situation and damage to its organisation. However, if your organisation has managed its media communications, assessed the risks of how and what it could be criticised on, then the outcome does not have to follow this path.

The RNLI

A recent example, In September 2019, involved RNLI and a headline on its international work abroad after announcing 100 job cuts in the UK. The issue concerned spending UK donor money internationally to save lives whilst having to announce it was scaling back UK operations and how this was scandalous to keep this from donors. Interestingly the RNLI choose option three, waited for the social media storm to break (which was incredibly critical of the charity) and was gaining pace and then reacted. Many comments on the social media platform were about cancelling donations.

Their media plan was to defend their position in a tweet and not to apologise for their actions – which was backed up by their reporting and communication on their international work in their accounts, website, social media and newsletters.  The charity stood by its strategy and defended its position, and refrained from responding on every negative comment to just positive messages and signposting to its international work. This communication strategy had to be very clear and had to ensure that the communication from the top to that responding to the media comment was consistent and on message. This means that there needs to be a very clear line between the Trustees, CEO and senior management and the responses given to the media. Their communication plan worked and the RNLI gained increasing support from individuals, including celebrities and other charities, on social media who were offering donations as well as praise. The good outweighed the bad criticisms quickly over a few days. Interestingly the RNLI personally wrote to every celebrity to thank them for their support. The RNLI will have to assess the financial cost of this media storm – not only on the most immediate aspects on new and cancelled memberships, but also the longer term,  such as galvanising potential income streams which may have been lost as a result from legacies perhaps.

Press interviewing a charity

Publicity

If your organisation had suffered a similar attack over a weekend on social media would you have been ready and prepared with your statements and how would the situation be managed? Some of the reasons behind turning the tide from bad to good on social media were around the response rate of the RNLI and tackling the situation early, on a Sunday morning. There are some key messages to take away – being very clear on your strategy, consistent in your communications and prepared to defend your stance.

This article was written by Charity Partner, Helena Wilkinson. If you have any questions regarding this article you can contact Helena using the form below.

We always recommend that you seek advice from a suitably qualified adviser before taking any action. The information in this article only serves as a guide and no responsibility for loss occasioned by any person acting or refraining from action as a result of this material can be accepted by the authors or the firm.

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